Tag Archives: Prague

Prague Czeched Out

It’s been such a long time since my son’s and my visit to Prague over Christmas vacation, that it seems almost a lifetime ago, when in reality, not even three months have passed. As I write and relive this latest travel adventure with my son, my heart is a bit heavy, knowing this trip will likely be the last time in a long time that I take a “big” trip with my son as he is now readying to embark upon his career and life upon his May graduation from school and commissioning as an officer with the U.S. Army. Sigh. But I digress….

My son’s and my arrival to Prague on TAP Portugal through Lisbon was pretty much on time with little ado making our way through customs and with no harrowing suspense awaiting our luggage arrival (as was the case with my last European flight….thanks, Iberia), as our bags made their appreciated appearance at baggage claim in the blink of an eye, which was a novel eventuality.

Devan and I found our way to the Airport Express shuttle, which, we discovered, did not run exactly on time (every 30 minutes) as advertised, and we became slightly concerned about how long it would take us to catch a shuttle since once one did arrive at the stop, it was jammed to the gills, forcing us to wait for the next shuttle to arrive. All was well as it turned out, but there were some moments of concern since the shuttles were not precision, causing us to consider the necessity to find alternate transport via the public system or private taxi. The shuttle did deposit us without incident to Náměstí Republiky, quite close to the Hilton Old Town. After just a bit of orientation, we ambled our way over the cobblestone with our luggage clacking along in tow, past the Christmas market and onward to the hotel where we were efficiently given our key cards along with what turned out to be an excellent recommendation for our first meal in Prague at Kolkovna Celnice, as I had checked in online.

The hotel services were some of the best we’ve experienced with Hilton brand hotels, and we enjoyed every moment of our stay thoroughly. By virtue of the practically sycophantic treatment on behalf of the Hilton Honors  lounge staff, the extras we received due to my Hilton membership and the overall amenities and location of the hotel, Devan and I have zero complaints about our Hilton experience, despite my usual preference to patronize more local, boutique type of accommodations.

Wenceslas Square, Prague
Wenceslas Square from the National Museum
Charles Bridge, Prague
Charles Bridge
Dancing House / Fred & Ginger, Prague
Dancing House / Fred & Ginger

Because Prague is fairly compact, Devan and I mainly hoofed it during our stay in Prague, with only an occasional hop on the Tram system to cover some ground more quickly between points of interest. This trip was even more “WanderFull” than usual since, as a major departure from my typical behavior, I didn’t make much of an itinerary, even a loose one, for this trip. Devan likes walking (sometimes all together too fast for even my liking, since he’s quite used to hiking for miles on end carrying a 40 pound rucksack) and actually enjoys taking the “wrong turn” here and there just to see what might be around the corner. We basically headed for areas of town, e.g. the Castle District, Old Town, the Jewish Quarter, Vyšehrad, etc. and directed ourselves in only a general fashion to various points of interest during our stay.

Wenceslas Square Christmas Market, Prague
Wenceslas Square Christmas Market
Giant Bronze Babies by David Cerny, Kampa Island
Giant Bronze Babies by David Cerny, Kampa Island
Kampa Park Penguins, Prague
Kampa Park Penguins

As with our other two stops of Vienna and Budapest, it was our mission to sample the local food and libations, which included a good many lagers during our visit. We enjoyed seeking out local establishments, mixing with the locals and muddling our way through ordering when the staff wasn’t as proficient with English as other stops during our trip. As usual, we attempted courtesy with a “Prosim” or “Děkuji” when English was in limited supply, and also as per usual, we were never treated discourteously in return. English was plentiful most places so it was easy to communicate, even though during our trip we encountered very few other American tourists, since English seemed to be the common denominator for communications with other international. multi-lingual tourists.

Love Locks Bridge, Mala Strana, Prague
Love Locks Bridge, Mala Strana
KGB Museum, Prague
Protecting the identity of the innocent 🙂 KGB Museum, Prague
John Lennon Wall, Prague
John Lennon Wall, Prague

It’s difficult for me to pinpoint what the highlight of our visit to Prague. The sights and architecture were spectacular, the level of hospitality was unexpected and the gastronomical delights were endless. While I’m not sure it qualifies as THE or even A high point, our spur of the moment visit to the KGB Museum was as entertaining as the reviews I read on TripAdvisor suggested it would be. The proprietor of the small museum personally walks the group through the artifacts collected, giving background and commentary in vivid detail as we went along. He was so animated and enthusiastic about the history, he kept the group’s rapt attention, even as he slurred his R’s in a peculiar fashion (as it seemed to make us wonder as to his level of sanity). My son and I both noticed his scars, both on his face (knife wound?) and his arms (bullet wounds?), again making us question his current or former affiliation with and seeming affection for the KGB and Stalin, in particular (his eyes lit up with glee and reverence every time he mentioned Stalin’s name). The KGB Museum was definitely worth the price of admission and wait for the owner to grab us and have us join the tour in progress (and then circle back to cover what we’d missed with the rest of the group).

Trdelnik, Prague
Tredelnik Deliciousness
St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague
St. Vitus Cathedral
Prague Powder Tower
Powder Tower, Prague

The view of the city from the look out tour atop Petřín Hill as the sun was setting was amazing and the visual stimulation in every direction was perpetual. The Charles Bridge, Old Town Square, the Christmas markets throughout Prague in the town squares, St. Vitus Cathedral, Golden Lane and the Castle District, the Jewish Quarter, Mala Strana, the Torture Museum, the Lennon Wall, Kampa Island, Vyšehrad Castle, the Vinohrady district, Strahov Monastery and the Spanish Synagogue were just a few of the sights we took in during the trip in between just wandering the cobbled streets (at the far too brisk pace Devan set for us), catching a tram and enjoying a variety of Czech lagers at the Beer Museum, the Strahov Monastic Brewery and a variety of other breweries around the city.

The three and a half days we spent in Prague passed by way too fast, and soon we were on our short walk from the Hilton Old Town to Florenc Bus Station to catch the Student Agency bus to Vienna. We had prepurchased our tickets online; the bus ride was comfortable, included wireless service and beverages, and took just shy of 5 hours to arrive at Busterminal Stadioncenter, Engerthstrasse, in Vienna via one short stop in Brno.

Prague had been close to the top of my to-do list for many years, and I felt incredibly blessed to be able to share my visit there with Devan. Prague most certainly lived up to my lofty expectations for its beauty, culture, architecture, friendly locals and gastronomy. Upon our departure, I could only hope that our subsequent stops would similarly not disappoint. (Spoiler: They didn’t, either.)

Prague from Petrin Tower
Prague from Petrin Tower

Student Agency Bus from Prague to Vienna

After researching various mechanisms for transport between Prague and Vienna, I had opted for Student Agency bus service after having read comparative reviews on TripAdvisor. From what I read, it seemed that travel time (just under 5 hours) and fare (19 Euros) were comparable for train or bus travel between Prague and Vienna. The reviews did, however, make mention that the comfort level on Student Agency bus service was a bit superior to that of the train.

As I’m writing this on the bus en route to Vienna, I have to say that I was not led wrong by the reviews on TripAdvisor. The bus is quite new, with touch screen TVs at each seat. There is an onboard attendant who offers beverage service, headphones and reading material. Wifi is even available on the bus so that bloggers can post about their bus ride mid-trip! The bus even offers electrical outlets for those in need of electronic device recharge.

Another reason I opted for Student Agency bus service for my son’s and my travel to Vienna from Prague was on account of the proximity of Florenc bus station to our hotel in Prague, the Hilton Old Town. While everything in Prague is quite accessible via public transport, I figured hauling our luggage on and off of a tram or up and down platforms of metro lines would be something of a hassle. Florenc was literally a 10 minute walk from the Old Town Hilton.

Our bus arrived at platform 1 shortly after 8:00 am for loading bags and passengers for the scheduled 8:30 am departure. The driver pulled out of Florenc at 8:31 am. I believe the attendant mentioned the bus would be making a short rest stop at 11:30 am to allow passengers to stretch their legs and, I imagine, to utilize the facilities.

While our ride aboard Student Agency’s bus is still underway, so far, so good. And now I’m going to sign off so that I can enjoy the view some more as we traverse the Czech countryside.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/b5d/68924948/files/2014/12/img_0191-0.jpg

Prague Hilton Old Town

I’m not always the biggest fan of staying in American style hotels overseas, since my preference is typically to stay in a more local style “boutique” hotel, but I do tend to lean toward Hilton brand hotels if I’m able to utilize my Hilton Honors points to save a few bucks whilst traveling. I have to say that out of the many Hilton brand hotels I’ve visited nationally and internationally, I think my stay at the Prague Hilton Old Town may very well be my best Hilton experience to date. While our room is not the largest, it’s definitely comfortable and efficiently laid out.

The hotel itself is in a convenient location, but what sets this Hilton apart from the pack are the Honors membership benefits and how they are executed. As with many of the Hilton brand hotels, we were set up on an Honors floor, dedicated to members. Like many Hilton brand hotels, the Prague Hilton Old Town offers an executive lounge to members, in-room refreshments, free wifi, free breakfast in the lounge or lobby restaurant, practically around-the-clock refreshments in the lounge including a full bar and food service; what’s different about this Hilton is not only the extensive benefits to members, but also the level of service to Honors members.

It’s been practically uncomfortable having the staff members wait on us hand over foot, as they are attentive to a fault. The attendants are friendly and helpful, not allowing you to fill your own wine glass (it’s self-serve), and when they serve, they are most certainly not serving with skimping in mind. The lounge is well stocked and has a great variety of food and beverage from early breakfast starting at 6 am all the way through 10:30 pm. And, yes, many hotels around the globe have fancier lounges and executive service for their hotel member guests, but I can’t imagine that the attendants in even the ritziest hotels could possibly offer the same level of service AND friendliness as the staff at the Prague Hilton Old Town.

I unfortunately also needed some special assistance from the executive lounge concierge staff, as my son was in need of emergency dental work. I was a bit panicked about what to do or even where to start trying to figure out whom to call or where to go. Fortunately, I had my wits about me enough to seek assistance from the executive lounge staff. Within minutes, the lounge concierge had made arrangements for my son to visit a dentist at 5:30 pm that day (today, 12/20/14…on a Sunday to boot) at a modern dental office right across the street from the hotel.

I was concerned about the dentist showing up on a Sunday late afternoon, but his assistant and he were both punctual and friendly. I hope that nobody reading this becomes in need of emergency dental service whilst vacationing in Prague, but if you ever do, Dr. Imrich Bajza and his assistant Romana at Millennium Dental Care were efficient, communicative and obviously most importantly provided top notch dental work for my son.

I can’t thank the staff at the Prague Hilton Old Town enough for all of their attentiveness during our stay, but most importantly for helping me in a time of need. Our next stop on our vacation will be at the Hotel Mercure Wien City in Vienna, and I’m a bit pessimistic about our stay there, as I can’t imagine it being close to living up to our stay in Prague. The Hilton Budapest City is on our agenda for our final stop on this trip. The staff there will have a high standard to live up to after our pleasant stay at the Prague Hilton Old Town.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/b5d/68924948/files/2014/12/img_4439.jpg

Czech Czech Czech

As I scour the web to figure out how my son and I should best spend our time in Prague, Vienna and Budapest this coming December, I thought it might be interesting to read up on some little known (at least to me), fun facts about our  upcoming destinations. I like to learn new things every day, and discovering useless trivia tidbits can be quite entertaining. Here are a few notes I came across during my search:

  • Czechs apparently love their beer and consume more beer per capita than any other country in the world with supposedly approximately 43 gallons of beer downed per person per year. Impressive! Since I’ve just recently learned to appreciate a fine pilsner, I likely won’t be able to keep pace with the locals. However, as my son is newly of legal U.S. drinking age and has quickly become a bit of a beer snob, I’m guessing he’ll be able to make up for my shortfall.
  • Prague boasts having the largest castle area in the world, covering 18 acres and including many courtyards and buildings throughout the castle grounds. The castle has also housed a Czech King, a Czech President and a Roman Emperor.
  • More than 6 million tourists visit the Czech capital every year, most of whom are German nationals.
  • The Czech Republic has the most hospital beds per citizen in the European Union, so if Devan or I were to get sick during our vacation, I guess Prague would be the place to do it.
  • Czechs are predominantly of Slavic descent, but many Czechs also claim partial German ancestry, resulting from the country’s thousand years within the Holy Roman or Austrian Empire.
  • There are more than two thousand castles, keeps, and castle ruins in the Czech Republic, one of the highest castle densities in the world, coming in third after only Belgium and France.
  • The Czech Republic is the second richest EU country (highest GDP per capita) after neighboring Slovenia.
  • Prague’s Charles University, founded in 1348, is one of the oldest universities in the world in continuous operation  and is aso the oldest university in Eastern Europe.
  • Moldau is the German name for the Vltava River which runs through Prague.

I can’t verify most of the above random facts I encountered, and there may be some debate regarding the veracity of some of the points… I’m presuming there are some countries which rival the Czech Republic’s beer consumption and compete closely for the distinctive title of the Beer Chugging Capital of the World.  Accurate or not, it will be fun to compare my newly discovered factoids to what we encounter during our upcoming visit to Praha.

Holding Pattern

Now that I’ve finally determined that I’ll be visiting Prague, Vienna and Budapest during my next “big”  trip (I will likely take a “little” one the month prior) as well as with whom I will be traveling (my son – YAY!), I’ve become incredibly antsy (yes, a surprise for those who know me) to get all of my proverbial ducks in a row so that I have a general game plan to review and tweak as travel day approaches. However, in this case, definitive planning is somewhat stalled for the time being, although my nerd research continues full bore.

Some of the structural bones to the trip have been defined to date, which is a nice feeling since those are the essential elements to trip planning, while the activities laced between are all somewhat adaptable to circumstances. Thus far, I’ve secured our flights to Prague and home from Budapest (after much ado weighing the virtues of convenient flight times, reasonable layovers and palatable fares) as well as our lodgings in each of the cities we’ll be visiting. As per usual, we’ll take advantage of my credit card points in Prague and Budapest – hey, not much beats “free” – and, Hotwire helped me find a conveniently located and reasonable, yet decent, hotel in Vienna, where the hotels included in my rewards plan would have drained my points stockpile a bit further than I would have liked.

Our airport transfer modes have also been determined (though not yet secured) with utilizing the Airport Express bus service from Vaclav Havel Airport Prague (no reservation is required) and a private pre-arranged transfer (too early to book) at the miserable hour of 2:45 am from the hotel in Budapest to catch our 5 am flight home from Ferenc Liszt International Airport. However, my logistical planning has been slightly delayed on account of train schedules being a bit in flux at the current juncture. From what I’ve read, a new main train station in Vienna (Wien Hauptbahnhof) has been under construction for some time and should be fully operational by the start of December, with schedules not being released until mid-October. Since Vienna is flanked by Prague and Budapest in our itinerary and arrival and departure via train are part of the plan, this logistical detail will have to wait until schedules are available. Once train schedules are finally released, there’s even the possibility we’ll utilize a bus service between cities instead, if those schedules turn out to be more conducive to our overall game plan.

In the meantime, there’s much to research in each of our destination cities. But my holding pattern is twofold, though, since I want to consider my son’s input in the activity planning. Given that he’s been incommunicado whilst at training at Fort Knox for three weeks now (sniff, sniff), he’s neither been able to do his own research nor even provide input to ideas I’ve garnered to date.  At least soon he’ll have access to the outside world once he arrives at Fort Polk for infantry training (big time YAY!), so he’ll be able to provide his thoughts about how we should spend our time during the trip.  Without a doubt, sampling some fine Czech pilsners will end up on his to-do list. I’m sure we can work that into the schedule for him somehow….

And the winner is……. Prague!

Well, the headline of this post is quite incomplete, possibly even a bit inaccurate, since I’m the real winner being that my son agreed to be my travel buddy on my upcoming trip once again. But as far as the travel destination selection goes, Prague, along with Vienna and Budapest, won my internal debate about where I should spend Christmas with my son this year. It’s been an arduous process just to arrive at this conclusion, but now that I’m finally there… the fun begins!

Vienna, Austria at Christmas
Vienna doesn’t seem to be a bad place to spend Christmas with my son!

I took the first leap yesterday and bought our plane tickets via Kayak and Vayama after spending many hours researching flights on Skyscanner, Airfarewatchdog, and Google Flights amongst many of the other flight aggregator sites. It wasn’t easy to decide the right approach, but “right” is subjective. For me, it turned out to be finding a good mix of relatively conveniently scheduled and relatively reasonable flights. I say “relatively” on both counts since the flights to Prague and from Budapest both have layovers in Lisbon (TAP Portugal) with the layover on the journey to Prague being unpleasantly long (a bit over four hours), the departure flight from Budapest is at an unreasonably early hour (5 am – YUCK!), and the price, while the cheapest I’ve paid to get to Europe in many years, still wasn’t a real bargain. But, all things considered, these flights seemed a good option to grab so I can forge ahead with the next stages of the trip planning process.

So, now I’m in full research mode….looking into accommodation options as well as logistical details, mainly the train schedule between Prague and Vienna and from Vienna and Budapest at this stage in the game. The train schedule could very well affect my plan for travel dates between cities since I don’t want to cut the stay in any of the cities we’ll be visiting too short. It looks like Devan and I will be spending Christmas 2014 in Vienna, though! I’ve never spent Christmas overseas before, but Christmas in Vienna looks magical and seems like a good way to give a European Christmas a try! Really, how bad could it be?!

Now that “big decision number one” has been determined, the Tripadvisor forums will be one of the places you’ll be able to find me over the next several months. These forums are invaluable tools for seeking out advice from destination experts around the globe. They’re also quite entertaining, since there are typically resident know-it-alls, who are not only very knowledgeable about the destination they claim as their area of expertise, but who also enjoy lacing a bit of sarcasm and wit into their responses to posts, particularly to newbies.

I can't wait to take my own photos in Budapest!
I can’t wait to take my own photos in Budapest!

So much to do…but at least I have a bit of time to get all of my proverbial ducks in a row. Since my son is still incommunicado at Fort Knox Army ROTC training, he is unaware that our Christmas trip destination has been finalized. When he’s allowed to communicate with the outside world once again next month, I’m hoping he’ll be pleased with the outcome of what was the question of the hour. At the very least, I’m sure he’ll be thrilled at the prospect of sampling some fine Czech pilsners!

 

 
Continue reading And the winner is……. Prague!